Sisters and Saxophones: Tristan Cappel's debut, "Deadbird," was a lifetime in the making


Tristan Cappel

Alto saxophonist Tristan Cappel will celebrate the release of his debut album, Deadbird, at Canterbury House on March 11.

Tristan Cappel may have never picked up the alto saxophone were it not for his sister.

“My sister is four years older and I always looked up to her growing up, following in her footsteps in any way I could,” said the 21-year-old junior at the University of Michigan. “In 5th grade, band class was an option at my elementary school and my sister, who also played clarinet in the band, urged me to join and play saxophone. Wanting to be like her, I did.”

If you consider the long tail of her influence, his sister's encouragement all those years ago is ultimately what lead to Cappel making his debut album, Deadbird. The LP features eight original jazz compositions by the native of Sterling Heights, Michigan, all composed between ages 17 to 20. He recorded the album at U-M's Duderstadt Center studio and mixed the album himself.

Cappel’s alto sax sound is dry and lean, filled with rhythmic attacks as much as harmonic exploration. His bandmates do a great job of dipping into the avant-garde without falling into wholesale honking, in large part because they don’t need to play extreme for Cappel’s catchy songs to sound edgy as well. His compositions allow plenty of space for rhythmic interplay and chromaticism while maintaining a solid base of hooks and beats that quickly rope listeners into his sound world.

Cappel celebrates the release of Deadbird with a show at Canterbury House on Saturday, March 11. We emailed with the multitalented altoist, who gave long, thoughtful answers to our questions. At the end of the interview, you can stream Deadbird and read Cappel's track-by-track tour of the album.

Q: How old are you, where are you from originally, and how did you get into jazz?
A: I was 20 years old when I recorded this, but recently turned 21 back in January. I was born and raised in Sterling Heights, Michigan. My sister is four years older and I always looked up to her growing up, following in her footsteps in any way I could. She was a pianist all of her life, so from an early age I would sit down and fool around at the piano even though I’ve never taken a lesson and still haven’t to this day. I picked up guitar in 3rd grade, but never really understood what I was doing, as figuring out music theory on a guitar tuned in fourths just didn’t make sense to me. In 5th grade, band class was an option at my elementary school and my sister, who also played clarinet in the band, urged me to join and play saxophone. Wanting to be like her, I did. I took band for three or four years and was always an OK player but was never inspired to play or pursue my own creative potential on the instrument until I met a student two years older than me who could really play and improvise well. I asked who he studied with and quickly became interested in getting better at saxophone.

Over the next couple years, I was fortunate enough to take lessons from a stern, well-established studio musician named Paul Onachuk. With his help, I was able to get my technique together, and he even taught me the basics of improvising over chords. In 10th grade, my high school had a student music teacher who was really into avant-garde jazz and he showed me John Coltrane’s Interstellar Space. This was my first jazz record and although it took a while to build a taste for it, I slowly became more and more obsessed with the music and learned as much as I could. This student teacher actually put me on a two-hour free-jazz gig, which happened to be my first extracurricular performance. In fact, I still interact with the musicians I met then. In 11th grade, a former student at my high school who is now an established Detroit guitarist came to do a workshop at my high school, and he invited me to a few places in Detroit where Jam Sessions were happening. I was really nervous as I was new to improv and had never spent much time in the city, but looking back, I am so grateful I went to Detroit and learned from musicians who could seriously play. I kept going to Detroit a few nights a week over the last couple years of high school and spent an obsessive amount of time practicing until I decided I wanted to go to school for music and eventually found myself at the University of Michigan. I’m now a junior in college and this music -- and music in general -- means the world to me.

Tristan Cappel

Tristan Cappel gazes into his bright future.

Q: How did you end up choosing the alto and who are some of your favorite alto players?
A: I chose the alto saxophone simply because my sister thought it would be cool for me to play in band. I looked up to my sister a lot -- super-talented, perfectionist, always did better than I did in school and music -- so I took her advice and went for it. I’m super glad I did. I wasn’t the type of child to take initiative.

Growing up, and when I first got into this music, I was constantly told I had to play like Charlie Parker, and although I enjoyed his music, it didn’t completely resonate with me at first. In 10th grade, around the time I heard Interstellar Space, I was really fed up with being told to sound like Parker. I had already spent a lot of time transcribing and studying his harmonic concepts and I felt like I needed to find someone who was completely different.

Eventually, I found Eric Dolphy and I was hooked from the start. Never before have I heard someone play as uniquely and intensely as Dolphy -- especially on three separate instruments! He quickly became one of my idols. Over time, John Coltrane got to the top of my list of inspirations as well, although he took a bit more time to grow on me. A few others that have really spoken to me over the years are Steve Coleman, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Ornette Coleman, and Lee Konitz.

Tristan Cappel

Tristan Cappel hanging with legendary tenor saxophonist Benny Golson.

Q: What made you decide to record the album now? I imagine having free access to the amazing Duderstadt Center studio while still a student at U-M had to play into it. Do you graduate in 2018?
A: Yes, I graduate in 2018. I started composing at 17 and I’ve built up a book of about 40 compositions that I would feel comfortable performing. When I got to college I quickly put a trio together and got as many shows as I could presenting my original music, and people seemed to dig it. Sophomore year I tried to get the same band, with minor alterations, in the studio to record eight tracks, but the end result wasn’t good enough to release, so I scrapped it and used it as a learning experience.

Part of why I recorded the album now was, yes, the studio was free, but I also wanted to have a resume of recorded works before I left college. I felt like I had a sound together and a compositional style together that was relatively strong enough to make an impactful record. Using the experience in the studio from the previous year, I had a much better idea of how to organize the bands, get focused rehearsal time in, and record in the studio without hiccups. Overall, I am very happy with the result.

I should also mention that being a double major in performing arts technology, I’ve been taking a lot of classes on sound recording and studio work, so I had a much better understanding of microphone techniques, recording techniques, and how to mix things properly. I mixed this entire album myself and got some help with the mastering from my performing arts technology professors.

Q: Guitar is the only chording instrument; had you always pictured these songs pianoless in your head? What does not having a piano in the band allow you to do differently as a musician? (Also, the guitar doesn’t always fall into comping mode, either, so it feels like you really wanted to keep things open.)
A: I began composition in trio formats and also always enjoyed Eric Dolphy's and Ornette Coleman's lack of harmonic instrumentation. I felt like it kept the roots to my creative/free music side because I could do a lot of harmonic shifts without losing the harmonic instrument. Sophomore year I met Will Rachofsky and really saw how sensitive and intuitive of a player/human he is, so I added him to the group. I don't feel like I've lost touch with the creative/free roots, either.

I'm very picky with pianists, and here at the university, there are surprisingly few harmonic rhythm instrumentalists to choose from. I felt that Will and I resonated the most musically and as friends.

Tristan Cappel

Tristan Cappel poses with Lee Konitz after his lesson with the alto-sax great.

Q: Which famous musicians have you had the chance to either study with or play with on stage?
A: I was super fortunate to study with a few super famous people. My favorite being Lee Konitz, whom I had the pleasure to take two two-hour lessons with when I was 19. He was 87 at the time, but still a witty, grumpy, amazing person/musician. We began each lesson discussing our musical backgrounds and endeavors. We talked about his time with Charlie Parker, his time studying with Lennie Tristano, and about the times he would hang out with Ornette Coleman. He also told me some funny stories about getting into arguments with his 8-year-old granddaughter about playing the piano wrong, so she locked the piano and took the key when she left his apartment.

In the lesson, he had no issues with how I was playing, but he urged me to sing more and really try to connect with my voice -- literally -- and make it an extension of my playing. He demonstrated for me and I was amazed at how his singing and his playing sounded exactly the same.

I also got to take a lesson with Richie Cole at one point. I was in high school, 17 or 18, I believe. He was a really cool guy. He didn't really give me much advice playing wise, but just told me to live my life. He told me about how at my age he was more concerned with sleeping with attractive women than anything, ha ha. I asked him about Phil Woods because I was also into Phil at the time. He kinda got upset; I guess him and Phil had a falling out once Richie broke Phil's eight-year Downbeat "best alto player" streak.

Last month I got to be featured in a concert alongside Gary Burton with the University of Michigan Jazz Ensemble. Professor Dennis Wilson, former trombonist for the Count Basie Orchestra -- with Count Basie himself -- really enjoys my playing, and freshman year he wrote me a big band chart to be featured on. The song was "You're Everything" by Chick Corea, and Gary Burton and I traded solos during the concert, and it was honestly one of my favorite performances I've gotten to do. I completely let go of all expectations and ended up playing really well. Talking to Gary Burton afterward he was quite pleased with my playing and told me to continue maturing and my playing to grow as well.

I should also mention that I've gotten to study with Benny Green, Bob Hurst, and Miles Okazaki here at the university. They are all wonderful people and have very different personalities. They've taught me so much and I'll be forever indebted to them and all they've given me.

Q: What’s the lineup going to be for the record-release show? I watched the 2015 trio video from Canterbury -- another chordless instrument situation.
A: Unfortunately, my good friends Everett Reid and Will Rachofsky, who are on the record, are unable to be there. Will is in New York, and Everett will be in Chicago. The lineup will be Brian Juarez (bass), Mike Perlman (electric bass), Peter Formanek (tenor sax), David Alvarez III (drums), and new to performing with us will be Adam Kahana (guitar), whom I have no doubt will be able to add good energy to the group. We will be performing four tracks off the record as well as four new/long forgotten compositions that I'm eager to present.

Deadbird lineup:
Tristan Cappel - Alto/Soprano Saxophone
Peter Formanek - Tenor Saxophone (Tracks 1 & 3)
Will Rachofsky - Guitar
Brian Juarez - Double Bass
Mike Perlman - Electric Bass (Track 5)
Everett Reid - Drums (Tracks 4, 5, 6, & 7)
David Alvarez III - Drums (Tracks 1, 2, 3,)

A track-by-track guide to Deadbird:

➥ “Deadbird” - At the time of writing this song I was doing a lot of visual art, and began my political and spiritual awakening. I think that we as Americans are indoctrinated into a system that is seriously flawed and it takes a lot of time and some strange experiences to wake up individuals from the “America > Everything” mindset. The original melody line was something that came to me in the moment while sitting at the piano one night after drawing a picture of a dead bird in summer 2015. I was kind of obsessed with the realization of how brainwashed so many Americans are -- including my previous self -- by being immersed in a culture based on capital, consumerism, and “us vs. them” mentality.

At first, I really wasn’t sure what to do with the melody. It had no chords, harmony -- it was simply an atonal medley that I found attractive and meaningful. Because I wrote harmonic pieces so often, my first attempt at this piece was to cut up the melody into different odd meters and add some chords that I thought might sound good. That summer, I went to Brooklyn Conservatory and attended a program called School for Improvisational Music where we workshopped compositions and free-form improvisation. I brought in this composition to my small group, instructed by established bassist Michael Formanek. Long story short, it did not sound good. No one else really thought so either.

Fall semester 2016, I began studying with Miles Okazaki, a guitarist who tours with Steve Coleman. Back in November 2016, Coleman did a residency at the Carr Center in Detroit. I attended and was astonished at the level of harmonic and rhythmic mastery he had. I deeply believe that Steve Coleman is the John Coltrane of our time. He is paving the way for new improvisational music and he deserves all the credit he has gotten thus far. In the masterclass, Coleman had all the musicians who attended improvise over extremely difficult rhythmic forms and no one could do it. I could barely do it. Even with a few months of studying with his guitarist, Miles Okazaki, I could not do the things Steve Coleman could do with ease.

After the masterclass, I knew I had to create improvisational forms that would test my rhythmic ability and bring me to new horizons. I took “Deadbird” -- a melody that I truly connected with that had been sitting in the bottom of my drawer for a year and a half -- deleted the time signatures, deleted the chords, and added rhythms that emphasized the melody. I brought it to my band, told them I wanted the improvisation to be based completely on the emphasized rhythms, and with ease my band found a vibe that fit the tune perfectly. I performed it at the University of Michigan Jazz Showcase a week later and have never received so much admiration for one my compositions. I am truly happy with the outcome.

I chose to have two saxophones, bass, and drums because of the baggage this tune had before my interactions with Steve Coleman. I wanted to get away from harmony and focus completely on rhythm. The most difficult part of the learning process was simply the rhythm chant at the beginning, but once all four of us internalized it, it was smooth sailing.

➥ “Dualism / Physicalism” - This is my fifth composition that I wrote. I was 17 and was being instructed by former University of Michigan trombone professor Vincent Chandler at Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s Civic Jazz Orchestra. Chandler was the first musician/teacher that I looked up to who believed in me enough to encourage me to compose. I still thank him to this day for doing so. I was a senior in high school at the time and was seriously contemplating the idea of the “self” and where the soul resides -- whether it is synonymous with the physical being or separate. I was reading Albert Camus’ philosophy at the time and getting into absurdism as well. I think these ideas are best represented with the initial melody motif, the repeated atonal bass line, and a tonal pentatonic melody superimposed over it.

The solo section goes to a simple minor blues and I purposely told my guitarist to refrain from playing until the solo section. I really love Will Rachofsky as a person and as an artist, and I thought it would be exciting to wait to introduce the harmonic instrument until after the melody statement of the tune. Besides just having the band learning the tune, the biggest challenge was getting Will to refrain from playing on the melody, ha ha. But I hope he knows it was just a stylistic choice, and ultimately out of love for him and the music. I love the statement he makes with waiting until after the melody.

➥ “Poeteer” - This was a tune I wrote while visiting my parents sophomore year of college. I was writing a lot of poetry at the time, and the melody, along with the harmony, came to me with ease. Sophomore year was a time of confusion and self-doubt and I think this piece is a reflection of the light music brought to my life at the time. I was very attached to this melody when I first wrote it and it still resonates with me today.

➥ “Hush” - I wrote this piece freshman year of college based on F. Douglas Brown’s poem “How to Tell My Father I Kissed a Man.” This was the first time I wrote a piece based on another non-musical work and inspired further musical works for activism purposes.

➥ “Honey Sandwiches” - I was eating a lot of peanut butter and honey sandwiches at the time. Honestly, probably too many at the time, but I survived. This piece was just another experiment in weird time feels. The guitar solo is in 10, and the sax solo is in 15. Not much of a story other than I enjoy playing this kind of music

➥ “Jack’s House” - Brian Juarez (bassist) and I have been really tight since freshman year. He was kind enough to invite me to his mother’s home over in Berkeley, California, over spring break freshman year. We visited a friend of his named Jack while in Berkeley; he is a pianist studying at UCLA. While at his house, I noticed he had a piano and asked if I could play it. The strings must have been muted because it kind of sounded like a soft Rhodes. The sound was inspiring enough to have me immediately come up with his melody and progression. This song will always remind me of my first trip to Cali.

➥ “Bluejay” - This is another track that came to me in the moment while at my parents’ house. I think I wrote this around the time of “Poeteer.” This song doesn't have as much of a literal meaning to me like “Dualism” or “Deadbird” does, but this melody still resonates deep within me and I felt like it was important enough to share.

➥ “13 Hours” - Freshman year of college I was fortunate to go on tour with the University of Michigan Jazz Ensemble to Colorado. While going around and giving workshops to high schools in the Denver area, I slowly pieced together this song every time I had a chance to sit down at a piano while going from school to school. This piece will always remind me of my early college career, the struggles that came with it, and the first time I've been to Colorado.

Christopher Porter is a Library Technician and editor of Pulp.

Tristan Cappel celebrates the release of “Deadbird” on Saturday, March 11, at 8 pm with a concert at Canterbury House, 721 E Huron St., Ann Arbor. Admission is $10 for general admission and $5 for students/seniors.